Propulsive and unsettling literary suspense: Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka ★★★★½

The hours are ticking down until Ansel Packer’s execution. And as he awaits his grim fate – in passages ingeniously told in second-person present, making it impossible to look away – the story of how he comes to be sitting on death row in a Texas prison slowly unravels.

But this isn’t a narrative propelled by our insatiable fascination with charismatic serial killers (although Ansel is both of those things). Instead, it centres the women irrevocably touched by Ansel’s heinous crimes. It starts with Lavender: a young mother married to a dangerous man and isolated on a farm in the middle of nowhere. In a desperate attempt to give her small sons the chance of a better life, she abandons them and calls the authorities to step in. One of those young boys in Ansel. 

‘You do believe in the multiverse. The eternal possibility of it. There is a version of you out there – a child, unabandoned. A boy who came home from school to a mother who read you stories and kissed your forehead goodnight.’

Elsewhere, Saffron Singh is a police detective who was in a group home with Ansel as a child, and was witness to his disturbing behaviour (textbook: killing and dismembering animals from a young age). The third woman in the narrative is Hazel, the twin sister to Ansel’s wife, Jenny.

‘Tragedy had a texture. A knot, begging to be unraveled.’

The novel brims in emotional depth and insight, offering no excuses or explanations but still interrogating thorny questions – are we fated to be a certain way? Would things have been different in a parallel life? Is our justice system truly delivering justice?

It’s excruciating to read at times, as the barbarity of Ansel’s violence is brought home in a crushing way. The murdered women are briefly given parallel lives on the page, as Kukafka imagines all that they would have gone on to do – walking the cobblestones of Italy licking gelato off a plastic spoon, raising sons and daughters who would then go on to live their own full, whole lives. 

‘There are millions of other moments Izzy has lived, but he has eaten them up one by one, until she exists in most memories as a summation of that awful second, distilled constantly in her fear, her pain, the brutal fact.’

Ansel shows no remorse and offers no justification for his acts of terrible violence. But the novel makes clear that as it is senseless to kill innocent people, it is senseless for the state to sanction killings. The hours before and leading up to his death – no matter how evil and unforgivable his crimes – never feel like justice done right. 

It’s completely unputdownable, even as we know the ending before it even begins, it doesn’t stop it being a stunning, complex narrative spinning around questions of fate, choice, justice, and the spaces in between.

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